LOCAL councillors have voted to accept the 2017 budget as recommended by Waterford City & County Council’s CEO – but with a number of amendments.
At a reconvened statutory budget meeting held in City Hall last Tuesday December 6th, the majority of councillors voted to accept an amended 2017 budget after a number of adjournments.
Councillors had failed to reach agreement at the original budget meeting which was held the previous week.
CEO Michael Walsh’s proposal to increase rates for commercial businesses by 1.2 per cent proved to be a major stumbling block amongst the Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael/Labour voting pact.
At the outset of last week’s meeting, Cllr James Tobin (FF) proposed an adjournment for 20 minutes which was seconded by Cllr Tom Cronin (FF).
Cllr Sean Reinhardt (Ind) proposed that the budget (as presented by the CEO) be accepted.
However, there was no seconder to this proposal.
After returning following the adjournment, Cllr Eddie Mulligan (FF) proposed a 45 minute adjournment which was seconded by Cllr Damien Geoghegan (FG).
Cllr Mulligan said he would like to invite the CEO to join the Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael/Labour pact in their discussions in order to answer questions.
However, Cllr Pat Fitzgerald (SF) proposed to close the meeting.
“We’re all entitled to know what’s going on,” he said.
The majority of councillors voted in favour of adjourning the meeting for 45 minutes as proposed by Cllr Mulligan.
As some heated exchanges began, Mayor of Waterford City & County Cllr Adam Wyse (FF) issued a stern warning to all councillors.
“The next time that councillors shout across this chamber or speak when I’m speaking I will adjourn the meeting myself for 15 minutes and I’ll do it every time,” he said.
“I’ll stay here until 12 o’clock at night if we have to because I won’t have the meeting run out like it did last week. So if you want to speak you’ll indicate to speak.”
After returning from the adjournment, Mayor Wyse asked for a proposer and seconder for the budget.
Cllr Eamon Quinlan (FF) proposed to accept the manager’s budget with a number of amendments, including no increase in commercial rates as had been originally proposed.
“This will be offset by increasing the vacant property levy to 45 per cent, yielding an additional €145,000,” explained Cllr Quinlan.
He went on to explain that the pact also proposed cutting funding for tourism and promotion by €50,000, cutting festivals and concerts by €127,000, and cutting economic development by €20,000.
This proposal was seconded by Cllr Damien Geoghegan.
Cllr Pat Fitzgerald said the amendments had taken him and his fellow councillors by surprise and asked for 20 minutes in order to discuss what was being proposed.
After returning, a recorded vote took place and the 2017 amended budget was passed.
Those who voted to accept the budget were: Cllr Liam Brazil (FG), Cllr John Carey (FG), Cllr Declan Clune (SF), Cllr Tom Cronin (FF), Cllr John Cummins (FG), Cllr Declan Doocey (FG), Cllr Pat Fitzgerald (SF), Cllr Damien Geoghegan (FG), Cllr Jim Griffin (SF), Cllr John Hearne (SF), Cllr Eddie Mulligan (FF), Cllr Jason Murphy (FF), Cllr Ray Murphy (FF), Cllr Pat Nugent (FG), Cllr Seamus O’Donnell (Ind), Cllr John O’Leary (FF), Cllr Michael J O’Ryan (FF), Cllr Lola O’Sullivan (FG), Cllr Seanie Power (FG), Cllr John Pratt (Lab), Cllr Eamon Quinlan (FF), Cllr James Tobin (FF), Cllr Siobhan Whelan (SF) and Cllr Adam Wyse (FF).
Those who voted against were: Cllr Davy Daniels (Ind), Cllr Joe Kelly (Ind), Cllr Cha O’Neill (Ind), Cllr Sean Reinhardt (Ind) and Cllr Mary Roche (Ind).
Cllr Breda Brennan (SF) was absent and Cllr Joe Conway (Ind) and Cllr Blaise Hannigan (Ind) both abstained.
Speaking after the meeting, Cllr Conway explained his reasons for abstaining.
“The budgetary process began in the early autumn, and for the past two months I have been engaging with that process – through workshop and research – in an effort to deal with expenditure and services as fairly as possible,” he said.
“What emerged last night was unsatisfactory in process. We were in essence presented with a back-of-a-fagbox device that had more to do with getting people down from a politically sticky gum-tree than with prudent financing. After half a dozen or so adjournments, and a yuletide pantomime of theatrics from players with few enough lines to learn, we got a new budget proposed and passed in about twenty-five minutes. I’d be damned if I were to give my endorsement to that.”
On behalf of the many members of Waterford Business Group (WBG), Chair Michael Garland welcomed the decision not to endorse a proposed commercial rates increase.
Mr Garland, who attended the meeting, said: “The WBG has been working extremely closely with founding member and former Chair of the Group, Cllr Eddie Mulligan, over the last few weeks. I know that other representative groups met with the CEO, but we felt that the direct route, dealing with our councillors, was, due to experience, the right way to go. Ultimately, the CEO recommended to the councillors a commercial rates increase. I was delighted to hear that our sound, articulate business arguments for a zero increase was relayed during the meeting.”
He continued: “It is the wrong time for rates increases. We are in all likelihood going to see significant, additional future income streams coming through the Michael Street development, expansion of City Square, North Quay SDZ development and promised additional FDI investment, via the IDA. These will add, directly, to the council’s bottom line and should, in future, give the council considerable additional rates revenue. The executive and our councillors must now deliver a balanced budget, by being prudent and imaginative. There can be no doubt that the reduction in the overall government central funds is having a negative effect on our council budget. But our commercial ratepayers cannot be the well of last resort, due to government’s inadequacies.”
Addressing wider funding issues, Mr Garland said: “It is a fact that the whole issue of funding local authorities needs to be looked at and modernised. The system needs to allocate and ring fence commercial rates for the betterment of the City and County. The circa €30,000,000, in revenue from Waterford businesses, must be used for improvements to public realm, street lighting, street cleaning, public development, economic development etc. Governments have full responsibility to plug any funding gaps, which directly occur through their central funding decisions.”
Waterford Chamber has welcomed the decision to approve the 2017 budget without increasing commercial rates, saying that the current economic environment remains uncertain for many businesses and that any increase might have the potential to slow down the progress being made throughout Waterford going forward.
Waterford Chamber President, Laurent Borla said: “We welcome this decision by the council and very much appreciate that it recognises the importance for the business environment to prosper in Waterford city and county over the next 12-month period. We acknowledge the efforts of the council to support the business community and in turn this places a responsibility on us all to focus on developing the economy here in Waterford for the benefit of all concerned. We believe that it’s vital for Waterford to compete and attract new investment to the area and this decision will support this effort in the short to medium term.”